Who’s Running Facebook?

Apparently, all that small type that recently appeared at the top of your Facebook page — directly above the “What’s On Your Mind?” status box — was actually about something important.

That may sum up the feelings of many of the social network’s members after Facebook on Thursday announced the results of a community vote regarding site governance. The notices that ran for a week on members’ pages had announced that the network was asking users to vote on new rules that would replace the former terms of service agreement. Yet judging from user comments and a low voter turnout — 600,000 out of more than 200 million registered users — many Facebook members were either unaware or chose not to participate.

Facebook wanted a minimum 30 percent turnout. “We’d hoped to have a bigger turnout for this inaugural vote, but it is important to keep in mind that this vote was a first for users, just like it was a first for Facebook,” General Counsel Ted Ullyot wrote Thursday on the Facebook Blog. “We are hopeful that there will be greater participation in future votes. In the meantime, we’re going to consider lowering the 30-percent threshold that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities establishes for a user vote to be binding.”

The vote itself was the result of an earlier controversy regarding a terms of service change that many users felt took away their rights to uploaded data and images. However, a user protest over that change and a recent flap about design changes that seem to emulate rival social network Twitter have prompted questions not only about Facebook’s processes for adopting changes, but also its ability to adapt to its stunning rate of growth.

The Need for Community Management

Facebook sought counsel on its terms of service controversy from the likes of Jonathan Zittrain, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, as well as the network members who set up the largest Facebook group to protest the previous terms of service changes. However, what Facebook may really need is a dedicated community manager, according to Jack McKee, chief strategist forAnt’s Eye View, a customer experience strategy practice.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by complaints,” McKee told TechNewsWorld. “It’s one reason why you don’t have community management as part of the function of the executive team. You have to break it out separately and have the ability of that manager to be an advocate for both sides of the story. It’s not just about transparency; it’s about the ongoing discussions. My mantra is that everybody goes home happy — maybe not that they all get what they want, but they at least get a resolution.”

Facebook’s rapid growth has resulted in lost connections with what the users wanted in the social network in the first place, according to McKee, whose clients include Apple. It may also have to do with how the vote was presented to members; even though the announcement was at the top of the page, many members may not have actually read through the text or may have viewed it as just another “click and forget” boilerplate message that gets in the way of the network experience.

“That’s what community management comes down to: If you had a robust system in place, they would have immediately said, ‘The way we’re presenting this is something they have to get past in order to get back to what they’re doing.’ The style is telling them you don’t need to care about this,” McKee said.

The New Way of Doing Business

Facebook is part of a new business culture — social media — that gives the customer more say, said Caroline Dangson, IDC’s social media analyst. However, she doesn’t think the inmates are running the social network asylum.

“They are certainly at the forefront of empowering users — consumers want control of what they purchase, and this taps into that,” she said. “But I [would] be naive to say that Facebook is going to say, ‘You guys run the show.’ But it is a new way of operating — not old-school, old-business hierarchy. They’ve always said they want to take advice from and empower the customers, and that’s what keeps … customers.”

That’s a standpoint with which McKee agrees — up to a point. “Integrating yourself with a community isn’t about putting the workload on them,” he said. “It’s about making your job easier with their help. What they are there to do is help you refine your thinking. You still get paid eight hours a day to come in and do something; they don’t. This all requires better engagement, a channel of conversation.”

That said, bad marketing of the vote and an aspect of crowd dynamics — many members might think others will take action on something and one’s own participation isn’t necessary — may have combined to depress voter turnout, Dangson told TechNewsWorld. “This clearly shows that [members] really want Facebook to take the lead on this. They don’t feel a social responsibility for voting and actually writing the terms of service.”

Three-quarters of those who did vote approved new rules of governance that do indeed provide more power to customers over the old terms of service, Ullyot wrote. The new rules make it clear that Facebook does not own user content and won’t share it with applications providers or anybody else without getting permission first.

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